Microsoft is having an interesting year.
Hot on the heels of its hugely successful Worldwide Partner Conference in Toronto, which saw 16,000 of its partners and resellers congregate for a week of work and play, it announced the consumer preview of the next versions of Microsoft Office, the official release date for Windows 8, which also will be the debut of its highly anticipated Surface tablet, followed by completing its purchase of social networking site Yammer and announcing its first loss – but record revenue – in its history as a public company.
And that’s just two weeks’ worth of happenings. There’s more in the works.
Microsoft Canada’s new president, Max Long, says this flurry of activity is the fruition of investments made during the recession. Where many organizations cut their research and development spending, Microsoft chose to press on, and now everything is coming together.
As more employees bring their own phones and tablets to work and use them to access privileged company resources, such as e-mail, Microsoft had to do some rethinking.
“We’re very conscious as a company that we have to do a great job as a company exciting consumers,” Mr. Long said. “But we also have to give CIOs [chief information officers] systems and platforms to make them more effective.”
The new offerings aim to do just that. Let’s take a tour of what’s in store.
Windows 8: This new operating system turns Windows on its ear. It looks different, it feels different, and it makes touch technology a first-class citizen in the PC world. We can look forward to some shiny new devices, from Ultrabooks to tablets, which will take advantage of the new features.
Preview versions of Windows 8 released in recent months have given a taste of what’s to come, but for businesses with volume purchase agreements, serious testing can begin in August, when the product is deemed ready for prime time and sent to partners for incorporation into new systems. Consumers can buy it starting Oct. 26.
Surface tablet: Also due on Oct. 26 is the ARM-based version of the Surface. Windows has never before run on ARM, a type of chip that’s commonly used in mobile devices, so the Surface has aroused a lot of curiosity in the industry. Microsoft says the tablet will run Windows 8, but not programs that ran on Windows 7 or earlier. It will include a special version of Microsoft Office, and will, the company says, be business-friendly. A version of Surface with an Intel processor, coming 90 days later, will run both Windows 8 and Windows 7 software.
Windows Phone 8: We’ve only had teaser previews of the next iteration of Windows Phone, but they’re enough to tell us it’s a major change. To begin with, Microsoft recently announced that the operating system of its desktops and phones will share core code, making it easier for developers who want to write software for the platform, though PC programs won’t run on phones, or vice versa. However, Windows Phone 7 apps will run on version 8.
WP8 will sit on new hardware that includes faster, more powerful processors, removable external memory, better graphics and support for near field communications (NFC). NFC is an extremely short-distance communications method that allows phones to be used as digital wallets that just need to touch the receiver to make a payment.
WP8 also has speech recognition and video calling, as well as cosmetic changes such as a new start screen. It is due some time this fall.
Office 2013: Microsoft’s product binge wouldn’t be complete without a new version of Office. While the final products won’t be available until next year, the company released a preview version for us to try. And while the desktop programs we know so well will still be available, Office 2013 is reaching for the cloud. By default, it saves files to Microsoft SkyDrive (its cloud storage product), making them readily available across devices (no more mailing a file to yourself so you can keep working on it at home), and it can synchronize preferences and settings across all PCs logged into the same Microsoft ID, much as Windows 8 can.
The suite is touch-enabled, so it plays well on new Windows 8 devices (although it also runs on Windows 7). Selected versions will include Skype.
Office 365: In the Office 2013 announcement, Microsoft concentrated heavily on Office 365, its cloud-based subscription Office service. Designed for business and consumer alike, it will offer three editions: Home Premium, Small Business Premium, and ProPlus. Pricing and availability have not been announced.
System Center 2012: Earlier this year, Microsoft released its latest management suite, System Center 2012, which focuses on managing virtualized environments in private clouds. It will be updated to include tools for Windows 8, and for its server sibling, Windows Server 2012, which will be available in September.
SharePoint: The company is also catering to the social aspect of today’s workplace, with a new version of SharePoint offering collaboration features that look more like a Facebook feed than the SharePoint of yore. And newly acquired Yammer, which aims to create the same social environment that consumers are used to on sites such as Facebook in a secure managed business environment, integrates with both SharePoint and business-management software Microsoft Dynamics.
There’s even more coming, including Visual Studio 2012 (developer tools), Exchange Server 2013 (e-mail), Lync Server 2013 (unified communications). This is perhaps the busiest year in Microsoft’s history. They – and we – are in for some interesting times.